Let me be the first to congratulate you if you have Tom Colicchio hawking NFT pizzas on your 2021 bingo cards. Chef-approved products are nothing new, but historically they have tended to promote traditional brands, copper-clad cookware or trusted names in kitchen utensils, rather than more speculative items. A chef without fame is just a chef. How does this affect chefs cooking virtual food?
Colicchio has had an outstanding record of charitable giving and activism throughout his career, but he certainly hasn’t shied away from profiting from his likeness since Bravo’s Top Chef (now in its 18th season) aired Opportunity. He appears regularly on my Facebook feed, offering a line of frozen prepared shillings for a company called Ipsa.
Through his partnership with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which he co-founded, Colicchio has played an active role in mobilizing federal support for restaurants affected by the pandemic. During that time, he worked closely with politicians like Chuck Schumer to make people aware of the restaurant industry’s woes and used his platform to advocate for policy changes to help struggling small businesses.
But his fighting cries for independent restaurants have recently been muted, and have been oddly replaced by technical chatter aimed at attracting crypto investors and NFT collectors. Before co-founding a venture called CHFTY Pizzas with former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendlesohn, Colicchio had been using his Twitter feed to convey (what he wants us to believe) an interest in budding NFTs.
It is unclear who persuaded Tom to sacrifice his reputation to defend the NFT and how much they paid him to join the crusade. Besides, why would he be so willing to give up the reputation he’s built over the years at Gramercy Tavern to peddling potentially worthless crypto paraphernalia? The simple answer is money. Colicchio will eventually relinquish his Top Chef throne and spend the rest of his life somewhere on the North Fork of Long Island. Is this NFT busy with his Ocean’s Eleven? The last big hoax before he hangs up his cleaver forever?
These days, PR and digital marketing are smart about hiding the business interests of endorsers and blurring the lines between endorsers and influencers. This makes it harder to detect whether someone is being paid to promote a product, or to pretend they value a product organically to influence consumer behavior without the nuisance of traditional advertising. The latter requires a credible backstory to make it more accessible. In this case, Colicchio deliberately announced his NFT project after weeks of calculating hashtags and tweeting about the potential of NFTs to avoid any suspicion. The food media didn’t take notice until his stupid crypto pizzas started popping out of the oven.
Even from the most flattering perspective, it’s impossible to see Colicchio’s interest in NFTs as a new source of revenue for Tom, Inc. To be fair, that doesn’t make him any more evil than Winklevii, Gary, etc. Vaynerchuck, or Beeple. He has the right to put his name on any product he likes, whether it’s a physical scraper or a scraper in the Metaverse.
However, given the sheer number of unicorn investments that have crumbled and collapsed in the digital age, it makes sense to be skeptical about the staying power of NFTs. With fast-moving tech—”flash crashes,” mob of Reddit traders, meme trades, and countless pump-and-dump schemes with questionable altcoins like Dogecoin, the market is getting more and more manic because of the excitement Overwhelmed by reason.
Early adopters of cryptocurrencies will certainly be rewarded for their beliefs, but does anyone truly believe that the Shiba Inu coin or Crypto Punk NFT is a more stable long-term investment than the stocks of established tech companies like Amazon or Google?Bitcoin plunges nearly $10,000 One hour Over the weekend, despite its meteoric rise, it remained one of the most vulnerable places to keep money.
The surging value of cryptocurrencies is driven more by FOMO than fundamentals, and like most other flimsy schemes to get rich, the harder they come, the harder they fall. When the hull collapsed and everyone else drowned, the banker brother who piloted the boat always found a way to jump ship with bags full of money.
Success in the crypto space depends on pushing coal into a blockchain fireplace to keep the flames burning. Any sign of smoldering could destroy the entire house of cards, potentially creating the biggest black swan event in the history of finance. Most cryptocurrency bulls and NFT experts understand this risk and work tirelessly to keep the hype train running. They have to do it, and most of them are opportunistic.
There could be real benefits to using blockchain for restaurant-related operations, such as protecting chefs’ intellectual property, ticketing events, fostering unique culinary experiences, and even payment processing. But using the technology to convince people that digital pizza is valuable is easy to do.
The pandemic has sparked deep introspection within the industry about how we should define the work of a chef. Role models are everywhere — like Paola Velez, who founded Bakers Against Racism, Edward Lee, who started the Lee Initiative to empower workers at BIPOC restaurants, and José Andres, who brought food to communities ravaged by natural disasters with his World Central Kitchen. Collective reflection has led to an industry-wide audit, with chefs and restaurateurs placing greater emphasis on fostering healthier workplaces, generating diversity and maintaining more ethical business practices.
On this cliff, the restaurant industry needs reliable ambassadors, not snake oil salesmen. Colicchio’s behavior, no matter how mild, undermines the serious work of other chefs. This is similar to the way a sports hero behaves “bad for the game”. Of course, this assessment is subjective, but we all have the right to name chefs for doing things that we think reflect poorly on our industry. From my perspective, tricking people into buying pizza-themed NFTs is predatory. Based on the current reaction, if this is the future of chefs, a lot of people are telling Tom to pack his knives and go.
In addition to his leadership roles at the IRC, Colicchio was recently named a contributor to incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ Food Policy Transition Team. Is the man who works as a food policy advisor in one of the world’s biggest cities convincing his nearly 1 million Twitter followers every day that investing in pizza cartoons is really the best thing to do? A city where many residents cannot afford actual food, and whose communities are often victimized by the irresponsible consumption of energy spread by the sale of NFTs?
Chefs are rarely consulted on food policy issues, so we should expect their undivided attention. At the very least, they need to recognize how their individual business decisions affect the food and beverage industry as a whole. Of course, times are changing. Chefs must also learn to evolve without worrying about implementing new technologies or embracing the changes that will lead the industry forward. But unless you’re wandering around the virtual world, Tom Colicchio handing out virtual pizza slices to his adoring fans is nothing but empty calories.
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